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American journalists led the charge when it came to critical analysis of the Vietnam War.

By Major Patrick Gibbons, U.S. Marine Corps

Associated Press correspondent Neil Sheehan, like many Americans who went to Vietnam, arrived in Saigon full of optimism and proud of his country’s stand against communism. He set out in 1962 to report what he hoped would be America’s triumph in establishing a peaceful democracy in South Vietnam. But after more than three years reporting on the South Vietnamese government’s inability to meet the needs of its people, Sheehan concluded that Americans were in fact defending a government that did not deserve to be defended. “Our responsibility for prolonging what is essentially a civil conflict may be one of the major reasons for the considerable amount of confusion, guilt and soul-searching among Americans over the Vietnam war,” he wrote.

The full text of Sheehan’s article “Not a Dove, But a Hawk No Longer” sums up American involvement in the Vietnam War. It is one of more than 116 book excerpts and articles from newspapers and magazines by more than 80 writers included in Reporting Vietnam, American Journalism 1959-1969 (Part One) and Reporting Vietnam: American Journalism 1969-1975 (Part Two) (Library of America, New York, 1998, $35 per volume).

Reporting Vietnam is a comprehensive anthology about America’s involvement in Vietnam from many award-winning journalists who covered it. The book begins with the first American casualties and continues through foreign policy decisions and combat operations. It also provides a look inside the confusion at home in America.

Well-written features and concise news accounts give readers a sense of the futility of American policy. The accounts also reveal how the soldiers struggled with the early idealism that led to American involvement in Vietnam as well as the growing frustration over the U.S. military effort’s lack of progress in assisting South Vietnam as the war dragged on.

David Halberstam’s profile on American adviser Lt. Col. John Vann provides an inside look at one of the many officers who cared deeply about the American cause during our early years in Vietnam. Vann could not get the South Vietnamese Army leadership to fight, despite favorable battlefield conditions, throughout the spring of 1963. Frustrated by political realities that dictated U.S. sensitivity toward the Ngo Dinh Diem government’s mishandling of the war, Vann, and others, attempted to sound the alarm that the war was not being lost in the field but in Saigon and Washington. Unfortunately, such reports had little effect.

Reporting Vietnam covers a wide swath of wartime combat action by a group of extremely talented writers. Tom Wolfe puts the reader in the shoes of a Navy McDonnell F-4 Phantom pilot who, on each mission, leaves a gentlemanly world aboard an aircraft carrier to joust with NVA air defenses.

Jack Smith’s firsthand report of combat action in the Ia Drang Valley, written for the Saturday Evening Post in 1967, is a telling account of the American soldiers’ bravery, camaraderie and fear in the field. “No matter what you did, you got hit,” he wrote of his unit, surrounded by enemy in the first major U.S. offensive action of the war. “The snipers in the trees just waited for someone to move, then shot him….This was a massacre, and I was one of a handful not yet wounded.” Later wounded several times, Smith was one of the lucky ones who survived the battle and lived to write about it.

Sadly, Reporting Vietnam also exposes a rather dark chapter of America’s Vietnam experience. Included in full is Daniel Lang’s “Casualties of War,” the story of a five-man reconnaissance patrol that kidnapped, raped and killed a teenage Vietnamese girl. Perhaps more disturbing than the actual crime is Lang’s detailed account of the chain of command’s failure to punish those responsible for the murder.

Throughout Reporting Vietnam, the authors provide a sense of our government’s inability to establish a framework to explain the extremely complex events on the ground. As a result, reporting became more critical over time, matching American public opinion of the war. Whether these reports reflected news agency bias against the war effort or merely represented opinions of Americans at home and on the ground in Vietnam remains in dispute. One thing is clear: These reports provide longtime students of the Vietnam War and beginners alike a well-written overview of America’s longest war.